Sunday, 28 September 2014


'As with all of her work, the best moments of Aerial are those when the listener feels caught up by the same happy, holy drunkenness that Kate Bush seems to lose and find herself in.'

 Aerial (2005) by Kate Bush
When the startling news was announced that Kate Bush would, in the autumn of 2014, be playing her first live dates since her one and only tour way back in 1979, my first thought was to wonder how close she’d be coming to my home town of Leicester. Not very close, was my next thought, because these days most big names swing past on their way to bigger venues in the Midlands.  Then it became clear that these new concerts would - all 22 of them - be held at the same venue, the Hammersmith Apollo, a theatre with a capacity of about  5,000 and that all 80,000 tickets had sold out in a quarter of an hour. Ah, Londonland! The place where it’s at, the only place matters in England, the place where the rich  have been casually shelling out a grand per touted ticket, whilst the rest of us yokels out in the provinces wait for the video. Shame on you, Kate…

By all accounts, the concerts have been multi-media events, as fascinatingly theatrical as one might have expected, although not the greatest hits show some might have hoped for. Some well-known songs plus ‘The Ninth Wave’ suite from Hounds Of Love (1985) and half of Aerial performed with undiminished live power by the 56 years old Bush with a voice largely unchanged since she’d last toured at the age of 20.

Aerial is the eighth of the ten Kate Bush studio albums so far released. Bearing in mind that the first two of these were both issued in 1978 and the last two in 2011, with a gap of fourteen years between the sixth, The Sensual World (1989) and the seventh, The Red Shoes (1993), followed by another of twelve years before Aerial, we can see that Bush’s approach to her place in the market is as unusual and as risky as the music she makes on these records. Consider also that the ninth album, Director’s Cut features only various rehashes of tracks from the sixth and seventh and what may strike you as even more unusual, is the patient indulgence of her record company, EMI, with an artist who has only rarely cracked the American charts*1.

All but one of her albums have gone Top 5 in the UK however (Lionheart (1978) was a #6), where 25
singles have reached the Top 40 although only 7 of them made the Top 10 (which might explain why
there are still some British people who seem never to have heard of her*2). She has also been
consistently successful in most of the other international markets.
There is a general critical consensus that Hounds Of Love is her best album. There is also a critical
consensus that Bush can basically do no wrong. This is because she ticks so many of the boxes that
critics use as their criteria for genius. For instance: expect the unexpected – tick; apparently a bit
mad (‘bonkers’ is a word often used admiringly about Bush in the music press) – tick; goes her own 
sweet way witout caring a whit what the world thinks of her – tick; mysterious (although she has
popped up occasionally in the odd interview and video, she’s generally thought of as an other-
worldly recluse) – tick; and yet ordinary (she lives a quiet family life in the countryside and has been
a homely tea and cake hostess to some of her enchanted visitors – although living in a gated
mansion, keeping herself a stranger to neighbours, sending her son to public school, and
occasionally whisking guests off to her other domicile by the sea via private helicopter may seem like a life less ordinary to those of us who live beyond the bubble of the celebrity  world) – anyway, tick. You get the picture.

Bush Babe
And the picture was a persuasive element too for the critics (most of whom, of course, were and still are male) because Bush was a rare beauty with huge eyes, great bone structure, full lips, a pulchritudinous  shape and a penchant for fabulously sexy outfits*3. Consequently, every squawk and squeal of her colouratura soprano was accepted as further evidence of her outlandish gifts. Of course, I’m as susceptible as the next man and serious music fan when it comes to female charms and a fascination with genius, but I do try to have a measured approach and steer clear of worship. It’s an easy line to cross though, and many critics can’t seem to see any weaknesses in Kate Bush – to them she’s simply a law unto herself…
Since reaching her forties and experiencing motherhood, Bush has filled out into a more matronly
On stage, 2014
figure and, when in public, has self-consciously tended to cloak herself in long, dark garments that sensibly conceal rather than reveal (see, for instance, the picture of her in a kaftan from the recent concerts). Her vanity only seems to extend so far though, and unlike numerous more visible celebrities, she appears to have resisted the blandishments of the cosmetic scalpel. The voice, still remarkable, has however, changed since the 1980s, lacking the dizzying range of yore, but becoming a richer, more soulful instrument.
It is this autumnal voice that we hear to such expressive effect on Aerial. A double-CD (although only a quarter-hour longer than the inferior 2011 single disc, 50 Words For Snow*4), the first half is titled ‘A Sea Of Honey’, despite only two of the seven songs being water-themed; the second, ‘A Sky Of Honey’ continues the water theme, linking it to the passage of time during a summer’s day through one dawn to the next. The switchback vocals of much of her earlier work is all but gone here with the more balladic style of songs like ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’, ‘And Dream Of Sheep’, ‘Moments Of Pleasure’ and ‘You’re The One’ providing the dominant tones on  Aerial.
In this sense, the album is perhaps a more conventional one, but Bush is never near the middle of the road for long. When we look at her earliest work, for instance, from the lofty peak of Mount Hindsight, those albums may not now sound quite as strange as they did over thirty years ago – but we must remember that the musical map since then has been profoundly influenced by Bush, one of those rare artists most admired by her peers and subsequent admirers. We should also recall that no-one had ever heard singles like those taken from her first albums: brilliantly original records such as ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Hammer Horror’, ‘Wow’, ‘Breathing’ and ‘Babooshka’.
Over the years, I’ve frequently found myself experiencing the sound of her songs, without  listening to the lyrics very closely (it wasn’t, for example, until my wife pointed out the dramatic marital scenario going on in the words of ‘Babooshka’ that I had any real notion of what it was actually about). Bush’s writing tends not to offer the listener rhymes with which to peg the sense of her ideas – and this remained the case with Aerial, but because her voice wasn’t cartwheeling and diving all over the place, the words drew me in more persuasively.
‘A Sea Of Honey’ opens with ‘King Of The Mountain’, a windswept meditation on Elvis Presley, which links him with another iconic figure – Orson Welles’ fictional representation of the first great newspaper tycoon, William Hearst, in his film Citizen Kane (1941). Bush wonders why Presley and Kane filled up Graceland and Xanadu ‘with priceless junk’ and hopes that Elvis finds happiness ‘in the snow with Rosebud’, the emblematic sledge of Kane’s childhood (and the most precious of all his vast trove of treasures).  A choppy guitar and, as is so often the case, drums and percussion, drive the rhythm of the track.
The penultimate song on the first disc involves another iconic historical character and is again propelled by drums, this time accompanied by Michael Kamen’s orchestral washes. ‘Joanni’ is a deeply romanticised vision of Joan Of Arc ‘beautiful in her armour’, the virgin soldier with no ‘ring on her finger’ about to go into battle, blowing ‘a kiss to God’.  It’s a memorable image and an irresistibly lovely song, which closes intriguingly with Bush’s earthy humming overdubbed by her own erotic whispering, but there have been plenty of songs about Elvis and the Maid of Orleans.

There have, however, been few if any about the mathematical constant of pi. π’, the second track on ‘A Sky Of Honey’’, is one. Hovering above the pulse of a Hammond organ played by Gary Brooker (who, of course, led Procol Harum and also appears on The Red Shoes), Bush details the relationship between a benign numbers junkie and his specific infatuation with pi. Hushed and entrancing, even the series of seemingly random (but apparently relevant) digits that Bush reverently reels off between the verses sound sexy and natural in the context. The only song I can think of that occupies similarly rarefied territory is the title track to an obscure American album from 1970, Parallelograms by Linda Perhacs, which has gradually and justifiably garnered a reputation as a lost classic.
Bush Baby
Next comes a hymn to Bush’s only child, her beloved ‘Bertie’, a little boy of about 6 or 7 at the time (there’s a photo of him with his baby-teeth in the CD booklet demonstrating his ‘truly fantastic smile’).  An elegant dance set to a baroque guitar and viols, the opening lines suggest that, more than seas and skies, Aerial may actually be an album about the sun and her son: ‘Here comes the sunshine, / Here comes that son of mine, / Here comes the everything.’ It’s very sweet, although the honey will cloy for some listeners, especially when compounded by the following track, which is, primarily at least, about a washing machine…
To these ears, ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ follows ‘Bertie’ quite logically, but it is the one track on Aerial that has fired up the ‘Kate Bush is bollocks’ naysayers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best song ever about white goods, although I can understand that it might just try the patience of even seasoned Bushaholics. A solo piano piece, Bush recalls a wet Wednesday when ‘they traipsed mud all over the house’ causing her – in the unlikely role of Mrs. Mop – to clean up and pile the dirty laundry into ‘the new washing machine’. Perhaps because the washer is new and she’s paying more attention to it than usual, she sinks into a reverie, watching the porthole as the clothes tumble around. From herein, the humbly quotidian nature of the story opens out as Mrs. McIntosh (her actual marital title) sensuously  daydreams about ‘[her] blouse wrapping itself around your trousers’ as ‘fish swim between [her] legs’. She then mistakes a shirt blowing in the wind on the washing line outside for someone (husband Dan McIntosh and guitarist or maybe young Bertie?) as it ‘looks so alive.’
So far so disarming – or so alarmingly sentimental - depending on your point of view. Now get a load of this: ‘Slooshy, sloshy, slooshy, sloshy / Get that dirty shirty clean.’ Twee, you say? Well, Bush has never been afraid of being ridiculed, but given that such whimsicality is pretty much par for the course with her, we should consider this: this transcendent song is about family life and domestic routine and who’s to say that she shouldn’t include a verse just for Bertie, given that the last track was ‘a song for him’? As for the identity of Mrs. Bartolozzi *5 – nobody seems to know, other than a theory that the piano playing may be influenced by Chopin, who apparently had a patron by that name. I don’t know about that, but I do know that the piano during the slooshy section is definitely inspired by ‘Crime Of The Century’, the title-track of Supertramp’s 1974 album…(When I realised this link, I was really quite pleased with myself, because identifying Bush’s rock music influences is notoriously difficult. She seems to have been far more conspicuously influenced by art, film, history, literature and classical music. As far as the Rock tradition goes though, she appears to have come almost out of nowhere, notwithstanding her fairly clear admiration for Pink Floyd and the way they utilised sound effects and spoken voice elements)*6.

Ominous guitars run through ‘How To Be Invisible’, a spell of a song about perhaps the less literal trick of maintaining personal privacy when one is famous (a trick Bush seems to have mastered adroitly enough). The final verse is worth quoting in full:-
                                                         ‘You take a pinch of keyhole
                                                         And fold yourself up
                                                         You cut along a dotted line;
                                                         You think inside out;
                                                         You jump ‘round three times;
                                                         You jump into the mirror
                                                         And you’re invisible.’

‘A Sea Of Honey’ closes with ‘A Coral Room’, another piano piece in which the playing and singing are not so much synchronised as symbiotic. The scene is set by the ruins of a sunken city webbed by coral’s spider of time’. In a transcendent moment similar to that set off by the washing machine, Bush imagines – or maybe remembers – dragging her hand ‘over the side of the boat’ and is flooded by a sensory recollection of her late mother singing ‘Little Brown Jug’, a C19th song popularised by Glenn Miller’s big band during WWII. In the last verse, Bush hears her laughing and sees her ‘standing in the kitchen / As we come in the back door’ – rather like her own mud-streaked family burst in a few minutes back on the disc – to where an actual brown milk jug would have stood on the table and which survives her mother as a family memento*7.
And isn’t this just the way that memories sometimes rush back to us? It’s a wonderful, moving song which reminds us that this artist’s flights of fancy and flashes of surrealism are usually rooted in real life. Herself the product of a close family, Bush has frequently involved her relatives on her records*5. As well as husband Dan and brother Paddy featuring on Aerial, it is light of her life, Bertie’s voice that opens the second disc.
‘A Sky Of Honey’ begins with both a ‘Prelude’ and a ‘Prologue’. In the former, we hear Bertie waking his parents amidst the dawn chorus: ‘Mummy…Daddy…The day is full of birds…Sounds like they’re saying words.’  The birdsong, treated to chime with a five note piano figure, together with the child’s gentle voice, is irresistibly touching (and offers the rare sighting of a lesser spotted Bush rhyme). ‘Prologue’ drifts in to the sounds of a waking day full of promise, the rolling piano taking us into ‘a lovely afternoon’ with cellos humming like bees and a ‘magic / Like the light in Italy / Lost its way across the sea’.  Bush then sings about the light in Italian to the sound of distant gulls as the orchestra swells. It’s a ravishing song which you may feel both emotionally and physically, so affecting is the melody, performance and production.
‘An Architect’s Dream’ although pleasant enough, comes as something of an anti-climax and leads into a slight slump on the second disc. It begins with Rolf Harris*9 murmuring in his ‘Can you see what it is yet?’ mode before orchestral chords similar to those that made Massive Attack’s 1991 single ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ so distinctive. The lyric is a ho-hum description about a painter trying to keep up with the changing light only to have his picture rained upon. It runs into the short next track, ‘The Painter’s Link’ with Harris singing the first few lines, before Bush comes in to tell us that the colours have run into ‘a wonderful sunset’. The meandering ‘Sunset’ is stronger lyrically, but doesn’t really hit its stride musically until the coda when the pace quickens and then blends into the all too brief ‘Aerial Tal’*10 which, picking up on ‘Sunset’s query as to ‘Who knows who wrote that song of Summer / That blackbirds sing at dusk?’, finds Bush joyfully scatting with said birds. Incidentally, when she was once asked by an interviewer who her favourite singers were, Bush replied that they were the blackbird and the thrush. Additionally, the highly effective cover design is a soundwave pattern of the blackbird’s song presented as a sunset horizon with rocks or trees reflected in water.
Madame Kate at Tussauds
‘Somewhere In Between’ is very much a mellow continuation of ‘Sunset’, a blissed-out description of dusk on which Bush is joined by Brooker, Lol Crème (he of 10cc) and brother Paddy on backing vocals (background voices are usually male on her records – and when they’re not they’re usually Bush herself multi-tracked). At the end of this track, there’s a nice little musical pun where Bush bids the sun goodnight and Bertie replies ‘Goodnight, Mum.’ Taking up an earlier melodic trace, ‘Nocturn’, at 8.35, Aerial’s longest track, with its more urgent bass and drums, takes us deep into the night on a naked, moonlit swimming and diving expedition, surfacing as the new dawn reverses the optical effects of the dusk. As the backing vocals again gather around the final verse, the song hurtles to a sudden halt as the string-laden pulse of the new day begins with the album’s title-track.
Following her Atlantic skinny-dipping adventure, Bush – by now laughing herself giddy - is gripped in ‘Aerial’ by the overpowering urge ‘to get up on the roof’ and celebrate daybreak with the birds exhorting us all to ‘Come on, let’s all join in!’.  Her husband powers the song – and the album – to its conclusion with some unstoppable rock guitar riffing and then it’s over, leaving us, inevitably with yet more birdsong.
As with all of her work, the best moments on Aerial are those when the listener physically feels caught up by the same happy, holy drunkenness that Kate Bush seems to lose and find herself in. I’m not at all sure that, beyond music, any other art form can create such a mutual experience between creator and consumer. An aerial is, of course, a receiver and transmitter of signals flying through the air*11 and Bush, at her best, is a prime exponent of this almost mystical process – and the relationship it provides between artist and audience. It may not be her best album, but Aerial is my favourite from her back catalogue – and one of the all-time favourites in my entire collection.      
N. B.

*1 – Perhaps surprisingly, The Red Shoes is Bush’s highest charting album in the US. At #28, it outdid both her meisterwerk, Hounds Of Love and its lead single, ‘Running Up That Hill’, which both stalled at #30.
*2 – When visiting my local Central Lending Library, I’m often appalled by the ignorance of the staff in the music section when I’ve enquired about fairly well-known records. For example, when I wanted to remind myself of some of the earlier Bush material and asked at the counter for them to do a computer-check on which CDs they had in the archive, I was met by a blank expression and asked to spell not only the artist’s surname, but also the forename. ‘Oh, come on,’ I exclaimed, ‘Everyone’s heard of Kate Bush!’ The middle-aged ‘librarian’ simply shrugged and smiled sheepishly…
*3 – Bush’s early ingenuousness soon faded after EMI exploited some of the more revealing numbers amongst  her gym and stage-wear wardrobe.
*4 -  50 Words For Snow was a disappointment after Aerial. It seemed as if she was almost trying to pull off the same trick twice – with snow instead of sun. With only 7 tracks stretched out over 65 minutes, it seemed to lack the former’s inspiration and melodies and could easily have done without the celebrity sheen of a duet with Elton John and a spoken word part on the title-track for the ubiquitously over-employed Stephen Fry.
*5 – Bush can be somewhat slapdash with names – ‘Babooshka’, for instance, is from a Russian word meaning ‘grandmother’ – not an obvious fit for the song’s scenario. As for ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’, I wondered if it was - like Zanussi - some exotic European name for a washing machine, but the nearest I got, apart from the Chopin possibility, was some C18th Italian engraver…
*6 – It is well-known that friend of the Bush family, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd ‘discovered’ Kate and has since done session work for her.
*7 – There are other Bush songs such as  ‘Mother Stands For Comfort’ and the much loved ‘This
Woman’s Work’ which are directly or indirectly inspired by her mother.
*8 – Bush grew up in an English middle-class Catholic family, the daughter of a piano-playing country doctor and his ex-dancer wife. She and her two brothers received a great deal of encouragement to pursue their artistic inclinations. Relatives often appear on her records – and her ex-partner and long-time musical associate Del Palmer engineered Aerial. Her son Bertie, now 16, appeared on stage in the 2014 concerts, credited in the programme as Albert McIntosh. He also does a lovely chorister’s turn on ‘Snowflake’, the opening track of 50 Words For Snow.
*9 – Best now, I think, following his recent trials and tribulations, to trust the art rather than the artist with Rolf Harris. His appearance on Aerial shouldn’t have been all that surprising as he’d played didgeridoo on the title-track of The Dreaming (1982) - something of an homage to his own remarkable 'Sun Arise' #3 hit of 1962. It sounds like he might be on that same instrument at the beginning of ‘A Sky Of Honey’.
*10 – I‘d never encountered the word ‘tal’ before. It’s Jewish for a Passover prayer and Indian for ‘lake’ or ‘rhythmic patterns’ (which seems the likeliest application).
*11 – The title Aerial might though have been partly inspired by James Southall’s painting which forms the centrepiece of the CD booklet. It apparently hangs in the Bush household and shows fishermen pushing out a boat bearing that name.

All pictures courtesy of Google Images
C. IGR 2014












Tuesday, 16 September 2014


Just The Three Of Us 
Air-lute in Avignon

Lisa always travels with a colourful supply of outfit-co-ordinated rings to adorn her fingers, but unlike the ‘fine lady’ in the nursery rhyme Ride A Cock Horse To Banbury Cross, she hasn’t yet got round to having ‘bells on her toes’. She does, however, ‘always have music wherever she goes’ because we now make it a rule to only set forth when our iPod (official name: Poddington Beer) is safely tucked away in the case. This miraculous little mobile library of music, which contains over 17,000 tracks (and counting), now accompanies us even on short breaks.
We have learnt from experience that we miss having our own music when away from home – on a trip to France a few years ago, we left Pod behind and endured a cold, grey week, too much of which was spent in our less than spacious studio accommodation with only a local radio station to keep us company. It rarely played French music – which we happen to like – and seemed to be obsessed with ‘80s pop and especially Phil Collins. Not an experience we’d want to repeat.

Lisa in a music-themed
 Edinburgh pub.
On longer trips, Pod becomes even more fundamental to the logistics of our holiday packing, but before I give the impression that all we do is hang around the apartment waiting to hear what the iPod Shuffle is going to play next, let me say that once sundown  is underway and we’ve left the beach or returned from excursions, we’re on the lookout for live music once we’ve eaten. This is easier said than done sometimes, but by the end of the holiday, we’ve usually found at least one new place – or a couple of old ones – to add to our ever-growing list of favourite bars abroad. More often than not, these pubs and tavernas will feat music of sureome sort or another.

Leicester and Liverpool
In Leicester, our hometown, live music has been less of an option over the last twenty years or so. This is because the biggest venue here, The De Montfort Hall has been dwarfed by larger concert developments in other Midlands cities. That – and an ongoing  conservatism and lack of imagination as regards booking acts at the DMH. Whenever we look down the latest calendar of events, it’s the same old procession of comedians, classical concerts, musicals, tribute shows and, of course, the pantomime. Nothing wrong with all that, of course, providing they’re still attracting ‘name’ contemporary  artists, but most of them swing by Leicester on their way to bigger, cooler gigs in Birmingham and Nottingham.
From a music fan’s point of view, it makes Leicester’s recent (failed) application to become ‘UK City Of Culture’ look rather feeble. When you consider the size of the city – with well over 300,000 inhabitants and another half-million in its overall urban area – you’d think there would be more than just the DMH and the new Leicester O2 (in reality, a tarted up version of the old Queens Hall Students Union venue in Leicester University). The O2 is a good venue, but mainly puts on shows to draw a student crowd.
It was not ever thus. During the sixties through to the eighties, all of the top acts played Leicester. The DMH, the Granby Halls (now demolished) and various Uni and Poly gigs provided consistent attractions through what might be called the golden years of Rock. In addition, there were a number of small clubs and pubs, most notably the Princess Charlotte (now defunct) which staged shows by name bands on the way up – or down – as well as worthy acts from the lower divisions. Now, however, there are only really two well established pubs, The Musician and The Donkey which cater for genuine musos.  
City slickers, String Fever
(courtesy Google Images).
Most of the buskers in Leicester perform in front of or near to the Clock Tower. We generally hurry past the religious groups drawn there – especially the Krishnas with their irritatingly clinky finger-cymbals and numbingly boring chant (you know the one – it seems to be the only one – which goes something like this: ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Rama’ over and over again to the same snatch of a tune ad nauseum). Occasionally, a more professional outfit will appear like String Fever, a band of four brothers in sharp suits with fashionably colourful, hollowed-out violins, viola and cello, playing versions of classics and pops. You’ve probably seen them in your town, when they’re not actually playing proper venues and cruise ships.

Casual crooner, Don Partridge
 (courtesy Google Images).
In the 1980s, the most famous busker of them all, one-man band Don Partridge was based in Leicestershire and could be seen around the town centre with his guitar, harmonica, kazoo, bass drum and cymbal set-up. Partridge, who probably never wore a sharp suit in his life, nevertheless had a couple of good folk-pop Top 5 hits in 1968 with ‘Rosie’ and ‘Blue Eyes’ before eventually deciding the music industry wasn’t for him and going back to the streets. He lived on a barge for a while out in the county and would play pub gigs. I saw him once or twice and he had a nice, relaxed act and was an approachable character.
We have been regular visitors to Liverpool over the year and have gone to The Beatles Convention at the Adelphi Hotel many times. Tickets for the event, which is always held on the last Sunday in August are, at about £15 each, an absolute bargain. Apart from the huge flea market of books, memorabilia and records, there are interviews, films and bands playing from around midday to midnight. These bands hail from all over the world and many of them are better than The Bootleg Beatles, who have maintained a lucrative career playing concert halls for about the last twenty years (they play the DMH every year without fail). Sometimes the day is organised around a rota with different bands playing Beatles albums in sequence. The best Beatles tribute band we’ve ever seen is Fab Faux, a group of top-class American session musicians, some of whom have even worked with various Beatles.   

The Bank Holiday Monday after the convention sees the streets of Liverpool given over to the Mathew Street Festival, with a number of open-air stages played by various other tribute acts. In a couple of hours you could wander around and see The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience Dusty Springfield and Blondie – or the next best thing. The Festival is incredibly popular and the city is flooded with hundreds of thousands of people. There never seems to be any trouble and the sun always seems to shine.
Could be the mid C20th
but actually it's the 
early C21st at The Cavern. 
The Cavern on Mathew Street is a replica of the original club that was demolished in the 1970s and is a fantastically atmospheric place just a few steps down the street from where the real place stood.  As well as Liverpool and Beatles related acts, the club has all sorts of bands playing its two stages. Visitors – including Lisa and I - from all over the world have signed their names on thousands of the bricks, many of them from the original building.
Lisa with Johnny
& The Silver Beetles
at Strawberry Field.
Liverpool is a great city – even if you’re not particularly into music. It’s full of imposing civic architecture, museums and galleries, opulent pubs and the Albert Dock waterside development, not to mention its two beautiful cathedrals. There are also many other interesting places which lay within a half-hour’s train journey from the city. Over the years, we’ve explored Chester, Port Sunlight, Crosby, New Brighton, Southport, Formby and West Kirby. Cavern City Tours have organised many trips to Beatles-related places too – we’ve been to music events at Strawberry Fields, seen The Quarrymen play in the grounds of John Lennon’s old school, Quarrybank, and have pressed into the renovated Casbah, the tiny cellar club set up by Pete Best’s mother in the family home and which provided an early venue for John, Paul and George and er, Pete in the late 1950s.
Occasionally, we’ve travelled by train to London and other places to see concerts and ‘make a weekend of it’, as well as seeking out live music in pubs on our various UK ‘city breaks’, but travelling  simply for the purpose of attending gigs doesn’t have much appeal to us. Neither do big arena concerts (or open-air festivals as we don’t seem to possess a camping gene between us).  

Practising in the park, Beziers.
Time now, though, to travel further afield and revisit some of our favourite music experiences abroad (we don’t, by the way, do long-haul travel and still have far too many places that we haven’t
yet visited in Europe).

Mini-Mariachi, Narbonne.

This beautiful Greek island was our honeymoon destination in 1998 and we’ve been back several times since, usually to mark significant anniversaries. Live music is not really much of a feature on the island, but in the wonderfully vibrant Skiathos Town, we soon found a little oasis called The Kazbar where a singer called Colin with straggly fair hair, a twelve-string guitar and a foghorn voice kept the revellers entertained. It’s gone now, but over a period of some ten years and several visits, we found The Kazbar to be a great place to meet people and sing along to Colin’s rock-based sets. Colin had a nice line in banter and quite a wide repertoire, although I could never quite get my head round his sincere contention that Oasis were not only influenced by, but actually better than The Beatles. The place was run by a lovely lady called Babs who assembled what we called a ‘dream team’ behind the bar who kept the Mythos and Ouzo running. A trip to the loo would always put a smile on your face as the walls were covered in an ever-changing graffiti of near to the knuckle and down to the marrowbone jokes.  
Kazbabes Lisa (L) & friend Lesley (R)
on The Kazbar with Foghorn Colin.
Another bar we’d recommend in the town is The Admiral Benbow which is a little emporium of pop music memorabilia, with old 45s arranged under the glass-topped tables and a vast array of photographs, posters, instruments and other bric-a-brac around the walls. The landlord plays a consistently interesting range of music through his iPod system – a rare thing, we find, with far too many pubs resorting to the predictable and downright bleedin’ obvious.
Lisa  & Zorba
One summer in Skiathos, we found ourselves in the apartment next door to a classical guitarist who used to practise diligently every day. This was an unusual delight and we discovered from conversations on the balcony from the virtuoso’s husband, who spoke a little English, that his wife was an actual concert musician who performed with orchestras. 
Occasionally, the hotels would advertise a ‘Traditional Greek Night’ which usually involved a small company of suitably garbed dancers trying to get the tourists involved in a continental knees-up. These could be fairly diverting, but disappointingly tended to revolve around backing tapes rather than live musicians. One memorable night though , a dashing young male lead took a fancy to Lisa and whisked her onto his shoulders whilst performing the steps to ‘Zorba’s Dance’. Fortunately, she’s never asked me to provide her with an encore…   
An even more beautiful Greek island than Skiathos, Santorini has two memorable towns, Oia and Fira, both of which sprawl along the upper slopes of the coastal cliff-tops. We loved both of them, but didn’t find much in the way of live music there. We were based at Kamari, however, where all along the sea front, an itinerant duo called Illie & Ollie, would ply their trade most nights of the week. So popular were they, that a crowd of fans would follow them from bar to bar. A bunch of teenagers, who were either teetotal  or broke, would sometimes sit on the pavement outside just to listen.

The N' Rock album: 'Cool - yeah?'
The duo played guitars and sang rock songs, displaying a particular bent for improvisation, especially on their epic quarter-hour renditions of Pink Floyd staples like ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Another Brick In The Wall’. Illie, lead guitar and vocals, was a diminutive character in his twenties with a piratical mane, whiskers and grin, and a roll-up usually smoking from end of a string amid the machine heads of his guitar. Ollie, a more clean-cut,  smiley hunk on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, was a bit older. Together they made an exciting and very musical noise, singing mainly in English, but sometimes throwing in some European material. They were good enough to carry off Jimi Hendrix songs as well as more poppy stuff and watching some of Illie’s flamenco flourishes, I wondered whether he was familiar with any of the distinctive soundtrack work of the great Italian composer, Ennio Morricone.  Alas, like so many musicians I’ve spoken to, they appear to be too busy making music to take in many films.
We bought their CD which was puzzlingly titled N’ Rock. When I asked what it stood for, I was told by the enthusiastic, rakishly beaming Illie, that ‘eet mean natheeng – eet jas soun’ cool - yeah?’. Bless him. Maybe it does in Greek.   

Frano Gryc with constant
companions: shades, fag, guitar.
After Venice, Dubrovnik would probably be our choice for most beautiful city visited. Both times we went there, we caught a boat out to the isle of Lockrum, about a quarter of an hour’s trip out to sea. It’s a lovely little place which, characteristic of Croatia, is covered in pine trees and surrounded by flat, white rock beaches carved out of the shorelines. After some sunbathing and a sylvan ramble through the woods, we discovered an alfresco café, frequented by a company of peacocks that used to elegantly forage for morsels amongst the tables. At first a little unnerving, this soon became very charming as the birds proved very courteous and unobtrusive scavengers.
Gradually we became aware of music rippling around the café and assumed it was recorded until we spotted a black-clad character playing an acoustic classical guitar with an electric pick-up. This, it turned out was one Frano Gryc – which we learned translated as ‘Frankie Grace’ – a poker-faced chain-smoker of few words, but many melodies. Lisa noticed him first when she recognised an unusual arrangement of The Beatles’ ‘All My Loving’ wafting around us as we snacked on beer and toasties.  Frano was a remarkable player and his repertoire of classical, jazz, standards, pop and original material was always tastefully and individually conveyed. 

It never fails to amaze me how many top-class musicians you can see all around the world who have never ‘made it big’, whilst so many chancers and charlatans find success in the music industry. Maybe it’s a lack of ambition and/or luck on their part, but a number of the musicians I describe in this piece utterly outclass so much of what you see in the chart and hear on the radio these days. For all we know, Frano Gryc is still catching the boat with his guitar and amp every afternoon from Dubrovnik and playing for the few euros a session the café pay him. If you ever go to Dubrovnik, you could do a lot worse than sit amongst the peacocks and catch his casual brilliance.
We bought a CD from Frano and – like other musical souvenirs from holidays – it always makes us smile and takes us back when one of his tracks pops up on our iPod shuffle. I took some photographs of him: poker-faced, always behind black shades and constantly smoking: and very cool. One of them, a black and white shot, hangs on an upstairs landing wall with other B/W pictures from our travels.

Recital, Vsar.
We had a very different sort of holiday in Croatia when we went to Koversada, one of the many coastal resorts featuring beaches lined by pine trees and carved and flattened out of white rock. The only outlet for live music on a site populated by a few apartments and bungalows and hundreds of tents was a restaurant bar where a guitarist called Pepe sang along to backing tapes. He seemed to play pretty much the same set every night, but he was popular with the punters who basically just wanted something to dance to (European tourists are often very enthusiastic and accomplished exponents of the terpsichorean arts – not a combination much in evidence with their British counterparts. By a couple of nights in, everyone was looking forward to a particular middle-aged German couple who they knew would be up and down amongst the fray giving it their own amusingly weird take on the light fantastic. Their favourite was Pepe’s version of the Australian one hit wonders, Men At Work, whose ‘Down Under’ provided them with a large canvas on which to spin their bizarre abstractions, cheerfully independent of the song’s beat and rhythm. I say ‘large canvas’ because the other dancers would either fan out or retreat to their seats, the better to view this keenly anticipated nightly performance.



Another year, we stayed at a beach resort called Baska Voda (or Bash The Vodka, as we rechristened it). There we watched a concert one evening in a small square by the local big band made up mainly of young musicians, who delivered a highly competent programme of popular classics and film themes. Another night, Lisa (who’s a fan of TV’s Strictly Come Dancing) persuaded me to accompany her to a large, rather swish modern bar, raised on boards above the beach and decorated entirely in white where a small troupe performed a spectacular display of styles ranging from ballroom to breakdancing - and all for free! Another evening at the other in the nearby village of Vsar, we went to see a recital by a classical guitarist playing in a small medieval building that had once been a church, but was now an art gallery. The guitarist was impressive although a little staid - and the place was almost stifling, with people flapping fans and programmes throughout in a vain attempt to cool down. But at least there was complimentary wine at the end!

The South of France 

Have scooter, will fiddle, Beziers.
We’re still discovering the beautiful medieval towns in the south of France, where even the most common or garden buskers that one mooches past beneath cold, grey English skies can seem transfigured when performing beside an ancient church, gallery or town hall under a hot French sun.  In Beziers, we stopped for lunch at a café set amongst the trees behind the great riverside cathedral.  A young man then turned up on a motor scooter and proceeded to play an assortment of classical pieces on his violin, before tootling off again, his hat enriched with a few appreciative euros.  Later on that day we sheltered beneath those trees from a dramatic midnight downpour, beside the cathedral now lit in a golden electric glow.
In one of the squares of Beziers, we also found a café called Le Cannelle which spilled onto the cobbles for most of the day before being packed away in the evening. It was owned by a middle-aged couple and their teenage son, a chansonnier who looked like a young Jean Paul Belmondo.  In between playing instrumentals on trumpet or trombone, he would sing French songs traditional and modern to the accompaniment of backing tapes whilst we sipped from a half-litre carafe of local rose` wine. Occasionally, he would serenade a particular patron and one evening, as we were paying up at the bar, he was changing into a colourful uniform complete with braiding, cap and tasselled epaulettes on his way to play in the town marching band.

By the Canal de la Robine which runs through the middle of Narbonne, there were a number of musical diversions, ranging from a less than accomplished duo cheerfully blundering their way through a '60s/70s repertoire to a group of student-types interlocking their guitars around a selection of classical, jazz and pop to a pair of middle-aged Mariachi horn-players.  More sedately, there was a smart, mainly senior gathering on a balustraded terrace, twirling elegantly in the cool of the evening to some pre-recorded ballroom tunes.

Belmondoesque, Beziers.
A bit of a shambles in Narbonne.
At the beach resort of Cap D’Agde, our first port of call at night was to find a table on a certain avenue where we could watch the world and his wife promenade past in their spectacular finery. Our preferred position was to perch on two barstools with our wine on an upturned barrel from where we could not only watch the constant parade, but also the people dancing to the music. Usually, the sounds were provided by chanteuses singing French hits and other Euro-pop along with the odd transatlantic tune. Another regular player who we’ve often seen over the years (without ever catching his name) is a virtuoso guitarist playing instrumental versions of rock songs with an emphasis on Santana and Gary Moore.
The Canary Islands
In my previous life during the 1970s, I visited Porto de la Cruz, one of the greener, less commercialised resorts in Tenerife and was impressed with the night life around the tavernas with their local flamenco groups. Over the last few decades, since Lisa and I have been travelling abroad, we’ve been to Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote several times, but only rarely have managed to catch much flamenco. Sometimes we’ve seen a dancer performing to backing tapes, but you can’t beat seeing the frilled skirts swirl in front of a small acoustic group complete with clattering Cuban heels.
There was a pub by the harbour in Porto Del Carmen in Lanzarote called The Scotch Corner where we regularly saw good singers accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars through a string of quality material, but all too often what was available at other places didn’t rise much above some plinkety-plonk merchant on a tinny-sounding keyboard droning out a hackneyed selection of holiday songs like ‘Une Paloma Blanca’ or ‘Viva Espagna’. Worst of all was a small Irish beach bar in the same resort which might have been nice had it not featured an oaf of only rudimentary busking skills whose idea of entertainment was to insult the clientele at length in between assailing them with brief blasts of oirish ballads. 

Can you spot the...
...statue at Gran Canaria?
Rather more stylish were the guitarists who play amidst the ‘living statues’ along the promenade wall of Maspalomas on Gran Canaria which curves into the distance where the sun sets. The sweepingly high dunes on the beach at Maspalomas are a sight to behold (and hard work to climb!) but the night-life there was practically non-existent. We’ve only ever been in the spring, so maybe it’s a different story during high season (autumn through winter in the Canaries), but it has been unusually quiet when we’ve been there
Beach bar buskers at Corralejo.
Corralejo in the north of Fuerteventura also has impressive sand dunes to enjoy by day, but provides a vivid contrast at night. Clustered on and around the main road of the town are a number of varied venues offering live music played by some of the most accomplished rock musicians we’ve encountered on our holiday travels. Two of the bigger places are a Hard Rock Café and Corner Rock, both served by resident bands who pump out the likes of ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ on a nightly basis. All very polished but rather predictable

Flamenco front and...
Slightly more off the beaten track in more ways than one is Rock Island, a little way down one of the streets off the main drag and signalled by an advertising car stationed on the corner pointing the direction. Smaller than the above venues, Rock island has been designed to look both cosy and exotic with wooden furniture and nooks and crannies, items of music memorabilia  lit by lamps, lanterns and candles all of which create a pleasingly bohemian ambience. Oh and before I forget, there’s the front of a VW camper van bursting through one wall, being driven by a cardboard cut-out of Jim Morrison of The Doors…

...back at Corralejo.
A fluid  selection of musicians perform solo spots and jam sessions which mix well-known songs with more individual choices and sometimes original material. The couple who run the place include the regular bass player and MC. One night we enquired of his wife where she’d bought a particular lamp that had taken our fancy – and were taken aback when she told us it was from a hippy shop in Leicester  from where we’ve purchased various items ourselves. It turned out that the couple actually hailed from Leicester , the landlady being the sister of a terrific singer-songwriter who often plays solo and in bands at the aforementioned Donkey and Musician!

Another night we were in Rock Island and the band persuaded a rather ordinary looking young bloke who was in with his extraordinarily long-legged girlfriend to get up and sing a song. It turned out he was the man behind The Bodyrockers who’d had an international hit in 2005 with the huskily voiced ‘I Like The Way You Move’ . They tried to get another song out of him but he insisted that he was ‘retired’. We’ve seen lots of fine singers and players on that small stage, cluttered with rugs, instruments, cables, candles and drinks, but perhaps none better than Harry, a diffident soul who accompanies all and sundry with his sensitive and often sensational acoustic guitar playing.

The cosy glow of Rock Island

Harry would sometimes also appear at a place called The Imagine Bar tucked away down another side-street, but which sadly, has since been taken over as a lap-dancing joint. Descending the few steps into Imagine opened up to you an L-shaped room with tables and chairs in the larger part and a bar area round the corner. Subtly lit with candles and lamps, the windows and table-tops were hung with scarlet drapes, whilst the small stage was festooned with dozens of instruments hanging from the wall or stood on the boards. This was the performing habitat of one Eric Sijpestijn (pronounced Syperstein) who, in all my many years of regular gig-going, would rate as one of the best players I’ve ever seen.
Eric in a blur, Corralejo.
Of Dutch and Scottish descent with a correspondingly interesting accent, Eric is a tall, dark and handsome, multi-lingual, multi-talented performer who somehow manages to combine an ego roughly the size of Jupiter with a genuine streak of modesty. Each table in the bar had a booklet listing the 500-odd numbers in his repertoire. The interactive gimmick is to write down the title of your request on a small strip of paper and go attach it to the bicycle-wheel at the side of his stage. After each song – if he remembers – he spins the wheel, plucks out a request and launches into the song (I once told him that we’d seen Elvis Costello do something very similar only with a much bigger, neon-lit wheel when we’d caught his show in Sheffield during his 2013 tour – ‘Ah, yes,’ said Eric, ‘but I did it first!’ – and we can vouchsafe that he did indeed).
From this point on though, the Sijpestijn show gets really interesting because, as he says, he doesn’t ‘do covers’. What he does do, by and large, are deconstructive explorations of well-known songs and downright overplayed classics, amongst more off-the-wall material including pieces of his own. Not only does his repertoire contain songs drawn from pretty much any genre you’d care to mention, but he also confounds his audience’s expectations by playing songs in counter-intuitive styles, often on different instruments to those featured as lead on the original versions. Essentially a guitarist, he will play an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, along with bass, banjo,timple and ukele; piano and accordion; saxophone, melodica and harmonica; drums, body and balloon – amongst others…ah, yes, dear reader, I hear you murmuring, ‘body and balloon?!’
Corralejo Crescendo!
Well, Mr. Sijpestijn, you see, body-pops his way through a kind of Rap version of a soliloquy from Hamlet and recites various sonnets including Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge whilst accompanying himself on a balloon which he blows up, flicks with his finger and runs along the microphone to evoke windswept landscapes or what another poet called ‘vast deserts of eternity’ (Marvell in ‘To His Coy Mistress’). The effect is spellbinding and Lisa, who is a teacher of English, has successfully used these pieces in her lessons (after Eric kindly provided us with copies on request).

All of which brings me to the Sijpestijn voice, a large and sometimes slightly unwieldy instrument which he pushes to its limits, often sailing a little too close to the wind for its own good. But Eric likes to be out on the edges of his talent – and if that results in the odd bum note or out of tune vocal moment, then he cheerfully takes it in his stride, frequently cursing himself colourfully or letting loose one of his rather alarming volleys of laughter.
Throughout his act, he relates anecdotes, tells jokes, describes some of the songs, wonders out loud, philosophically extemporises, and drinks pints of lager and shots of revivifying Jaegermeister with which he toasts the audience with his trademark ‘Salud!’. Naturally, all of this is not to everyone’s taste, but we’ve caught his act many times in Corralejo and noticed many other people turning up to see him night after night. He often has other guest singers and players whom he accompanies and occasionally we’ve seen perform Flamenco and other types of Spanish music with local musicians and dancers.
Last year, after we’d left the Brisamar hotel bar, where he is now the resident attraction following the closure of Imagine, we were mugged just outside by a dastardly deft thief, who was pretending to foist leaflets on us (which happens constantly in such resorts where bars and restaurants employ hawkers to advertise their fare with special offers). Eric was unfailingly kind and patient in helping us report the matter to the police and organized the stopping of our debit cards on the hotel computer. Anyway, if you’re ever in Corralejo, Fuerteventura and fancy a helter-skelter ride through Mozart, The Beatles, film themes, Hendrix, Rodrigo, Abba, Jacques Brel, Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen and even ‘Hotel California’ – to name but a few and all of them as you’ve never heard them before  - then be sure to seek out the remarkable Mr. Sijpestijn.
Brief Encounters
Plainsong in Avignon.

When walking around historic towns and holiday resorts, it’s always interesting to observe the living statues, street entertainers and buskers in a more relaxed way than one would back in one’s home town where you’re more likely to be striding purposefully past on some errand or other. As I’ve hinted above, we particularly enjoy passing an hour in an outdoor bar or café, perhaps playing a game of Travel-Scrabble, to the accompaniment of some wandering minstrel.

Youthful duo, Avignon.
Churches can also provide unexpected musical moments. Neither of us are religious in any conventional sense, but we do like good architecture and churches are almost  always interesting places. One year in Paris, we dropped into an all but empty Sacre Coeur where a nun was singing at the virginals some ineffably beautiful  piece. Of course, the acoustics in churches, especially the bigger ones, can be wondrous. In one French cathedral we visited recently, we couldn’t see where the voices that were producing the plainsong that was filling the shadowy spaces were coming from until we spotted an incongruous, tiny white beat box plugged in by the choir. This year, on our travels in France, it seemed that every church had singers, most of them acapella, some with the odd instrument, performing –irrespective of whether there was an audience. The French language is one of the most mellifluous and it certainly lends itself well to spiritual material within the towering spaces of holy places.

Guitar Man, Nimes.

Drummer Girl, Avignon.
Buskers can range from the shambolic to virtuosic and all points between. I would argue though that they always enhance the culture of the town (yeah, OK, even those pesky Krishnas).  Interestingly, however, whilst I was finishing this piece, I came across a story in the press about buskers in Bath causing controversy. The Rector of Bath Abbey, describing them as 'offensively loud', accused amplified buskers of 'playing over weddings and funerals'.

Most buskers play acoustically, portability being a key factor, but sometimes they do use a small amp or maybe have backing tracks. There’s a very good clarinettist who regularly plays Leicester with a wide repertoire drifting out of his speaker/amp combo.  He does well during the Christmas season unless the ‘Sally Army’ march into his territory with their brassy carolling. Accordions pretty much self-amplify and there are a number of East Europeans wheezing away around Leicester, the most striking of whom is an unfortunate young man who appears to have no legs or hips and perches on some kind of customised skate-board (the first time I saw him, I thought he was standing in a man-hole). Drums are another instrument that make up in natural amplification what they lack in portability. Occasionally you’ll see – and hear from a distance – a full kit set up and a muscular young practitioner bashing the hell out of it. They always draw a crowd, but I was never too keen on drum solos. A new instrument I’ve noticed recently is a single steel drum which can produce the whole range of a full set, albeit at reduced volume but with a subtler, more atmospheric effect. Meanwhile,In the fabulous park, Le Jardin de la Fontaine in Nimes, we wandered upon a man playing a hurdy gurdy - the only time I'd ever seen this venerable whirring, wind-up instrument in action. 
Hurdy Gurdy Man, Nimes.

Anyway, I’m wondering how to close this piece – and I think I shall leave it open-ended in order to return to it as and when, adding new descriptions and pictures along the way. Right now though I need to bring it to a temporary close as Lisa requested it as a special commission for her birthday – and it’s a year late, but just in time for her latest birthday.
 Balustraded Ballroom, Narbonne.

Classical Jazz, Narbonne.

C. IGR 2014